BWW Interview: Getting a Kick from Keckler at Opera Philadelphia's O19 Festival, September 20-28
Last January, Joseph Keckler seemed to burst forth, fully blown, like Athena from the head of Zeus, at New York's Prototype Festival (though his emergence was, in fact, no such thing, having already been a staple of the Downtown scene for several years).
His performance of his own TRAIN WITH NO MIDNIGHT was considered a highlight of that annual festival of fresh opera-theatre & music-theatre that descends on New York for a week or so each January.
This month, Philadelphia's got him, at Opera Philadelphia's O19 Festival, running from September 20-28, with LET ME DIE. It's a genre-bending performance piece (but don't call him a performance artist, please) for the baritone, whose voice ascends to tenorial heights, that was devised with dramaturg/director Elizabeth Gimbel. The work's title is borrowed from Monteverdi--"Lasciatemi morire, (Let me die)," a fragment of an aria about death that is all that remains from an otherwise lost opera. LET ME DIE peppers famous operatic death scenes (with some singing collaborators) with video from Lianne Arnold and Keckler's own signature comedic je ne sais quoi.
Not wanting to pigeonhole him, by trying to come up with a description of him as an artist, I ask him to "pigeonhole himself"--though not necessarily in 25 words or less, starting with the fact that I'd heard he was once a regional finalist for the Metropolitan Opera's National Auditions. ("That is true," he admits.)
"The simple version is that I make a living as a writer, as a singer," he answers. "But that also encompasses writing songs and making performance pieces." So what led him away from being a classically trained baritone in the conventional classical or more modern opera rep--say Don Giovanni or Nick Shadow--to the performer he is today?
"Well, I did the Met National Council Auditions on a whim, really. It was triumphant that I was a finalist, but I was never immersed in that world--I wasn't kind of professionalized or socialized in the music school environment. The culture around opera felt stuffy and restricting to me; whereas I think my comfort zone is to be compulsive. I'm compulsively coming up with things and having ideas and being driven by ideas.
"So that's the thing. Really, it's not that I had a trajectory of being an opera singer who defected, because I never really went into that world. I mean, I trained as a singer at the same time as I was training as a painter and an art student. So I was in a very creative headspace--a generative artist but attracted to the discipline of singing.
"I had moments there, in singing, because I had talents and was encouraged to go into that world. I had moments where I tried to test myself and see if that was viable for me for me to actually go into the world and succeed, but only if it made sense to me... and it didn't.
"I try to be really disciplined in the things or crafts that I've taken up, but sometimes I go into unexplored terrain while I try to stay as free as possible. So it's not really about trying to do everything or be everything but about freedom. It's about being led by my instincts rather than by something external that has to do with branding or being marketable. I guess it's how I would how I would say it. I want to be in charge." (Who doesn't want to be in charge, I remark?)
So, I ask, do you call what you do 'opera'?
"I don't," he answers. "Other people do and I guess it's something that's being invoked by what I'm doing. This project that we're doing now, for instance, LET ME DIE, I wouldn't call it an opera. It's not an opera, you know. It's a collage and it's an essay."
Well, I continue, looking at what you might call the play list of the pieces and snippets of arias included in it, it seems very operatic to me. (They include everything from Monteverdi's L'INCORONAZIONE DI POPPEA and Purcell's KING ARTHUR to Bellini's LA STRANIERA and Donizetti's LUCREZIA BORGIA to the two versions of MANON by Massenet and Puccini, the two OTELLOs by Rossini and Verdi, and a couple of dozen other works.)
"Yeah. But you know it's a sort of scavenged bits that are pasted back together. And so if somebody came and experienced this as an opera, I wouldn't try to correct them or control that or anything. I just wouldn't I wouldn't feel comfortable advertising that it's an opera, because I'm just not sure that it is," he admits.
"I'm kind of trying to figure out what it's about.
"And then at the same time there's a disconnect about opera in this country. You know we see operas generally considered a little bit of exoticism, but it's kind of also embarrassing: It's ridiculous, it's high falutin', it's not really to be trusted. So, I think it's something that the culture is working out and it seems to me that there is an unfinished business with the art form.
How do the classic arias fit in with your own music, your songs "Opera Pirate" and "Smoke Song"?
"My parts are working in the mode that has emerged for me in the past few years, which is kind of a fusion of monologue and song writing and singing in an operatic style. So I'm taking episodes from my own life and rendering them in an operatic mode--singing pretty operatically and usually singing somehow in the first person, even if it's not about me.
"'Smoke Song' is my death aria, for example, but I'm using some quotations, like scavenged lines from people like Emily Dickinson's last words, or the last words of somebody on death row complaining that they didn't give him Spaghetti O's. Then I am go into something about what it means to die on stage.
"And it's about my aunt who is an actress in Michigan. And watching her smoke on stage and she is not dead and watching her smoke on stage and then smelling the smoke after she was already gone from the next scene. But that the smoke drifting out from the stage world into the audience, the way it kind of unified everything and made it nearly alive.
"And so it's kind of an abstract poetic thing but for me it's talking about the impulse to act, and why people go to the theater, invoking the smoke as breaking the fourth wall and so on. It's also an emotional thing. So it's something that's schematically relevant to the piece but it's really operating in my own mode there. And then I'm dead for a while."
So, I ask, could one say you're obsessed with death?
"Obsessed?" he says, almost surprised. "I was born on the Day of the Dead. [NB: Halloween-ish.] I'm not obsessed with death in the way of in a way that feels that morbid to me. But from an early age, my first drawings were of hooded figures and a cloaked absence with glowing eyes. I've always been very drawn to the personification of Death--I feel a little bit called to address death in my work. But it's really not in a violent way. And I feel I'm not on good terms with the actual death, but with images and ideas of death.
Do all the pieces that you've incorporated into the into LET ME DIE have to do with death?
"They do, all in some way,' he explains. "Besides 'Smoke Song,' the personal death aria that I wrote, there's 'Opera Pirate,' which is about working for a guy, an opera bootlegger, where we're listening to operas while we're copying CDs and DVDs and listening to all these really dramatic death scenes.
"In every scene--or fragment, since they're all from either operatic death moments-- there it could be a character who is recollecting a death or character who's mourning or a character who's plotting revenge or murder. Or an invocation that has a murderous motive."
I explain that I can understand why people have referred to his work as operatic, as part of an art that has been constantly reinventing itself over the last 400-500 years or so (since Monteverdi's time). But what, I ask, does opera mean to you at this time in our lives?
"But what does opera mean to me today--I think that's a question that I'm wrestling with in my work more than any kind of agenda that I have. I think that there's a lot of power in that medium and I think there's persistent interest from all areas of culture in opera in the past few years. Some poets call their poetry collections, you know, operas; people use the term in the art world. Obviously there's an avant garde tradition but that doesn't really involve classical voice but that of composers are referring to their works as as operas, Robert Ashley, there's there's an avant garde tradition of this, Meredith Monk, and those people.
I mention that there wasn't any Wagner on his list, and he's certainly a guy who was interested in death.
"Yeah. I found that for this piece which is a total experiment for me--I mean it's definitely out of my comfort zone, I've never done anything like it before--but I found that the Italian deaths were a little more literal. They clipped along and were easier to condense. I also thought the Wagner stuff didn't sound good on piano and I thought it sounded sentimental.
You don't like sentimental, I ask?
Puccini is sentimental, too, but in a different way. We felt there wasn't enough activity in the Wagner we looked at, so we only used two measures of TRISTAN UND ISOLDE and they're just measures where one character says 'Tristan' and the other says 'Isolde.'
"I was going to do Brunnhilde's death, but do it backwards. We actually scored it with the words backwards, some illustration of, you know, the conundrum of whether opera is over or not. And has the fat lady sung, going a little bit forwards and backwards? In the end, though, we decided to just keep it as an idea."
Do you listen to traditional opera much?
"I do listen to opera--it's not the only thing I listen to. I listen to lots of things, so I don't consider it my home base point of view. But I do listen to opera and enjoy going to opera. You know opera is a very developed vocal art form and I'm interested in voices in a lot of genres. So of course it's just there's a whole feast there to be had. A lot of my favorite singers are classical singers and others who fall between classical and something else."
How have you changed as a creative force in the kind of work that you do since you wrote I AM AN OPERA seven years ago. Are you proof that opera isn't a dying genre?
"Am I proof that it's not a dying genre? You know, it's not that I have an agenda. I don't have a 'dog' in that fight in a way. There are people who are really invested in this kind of operatic renaissance and I am certainly intrigued by that and everything and I and I do know I mean I understand that there are instances where I'm doing something you know some 'operatic' you know with partly quotes but maybe not ,something operatic and I'm able to speak to people really outside of that world. And I recognize that that's hard--I mean I can play in comedy clubs, I can play in the art world. I can communicate. There's some kind of achievement there but I think I'm doing something with that.
Are you part of this current reinvention of things that fall under the umbrella of what an opera is.
"I'm not a composer in the sense of you know like, the contemporary opera composers like Missy Mazzoli. I don't have that training; my compositions are pretty simple. And that's probably one of the reasons too that I am able to do something in a club, you know kind of using popular song forms and then just maybe some of the chords are complicated. But then I have this operatic sound so people are able to connect to them and they're melodic and simple.
"This year is the first time that I have been in the opera world--I had that piece in the Prototype festival (TRAIN WITH NO MIDNIGHT)--and I didn't know how the opera world would respond to me and they responded incredibly well. And so I was thrilled by it. I was delighted and I'm happy to be part of this world. But I'll also remain part of other worlds. Some things I'm going to do next year, for instance, won't really have a lot to do with opera. I think I'm sort of an ambassador--a shady shifty diplomatic force who can mediate between different realms and kind of just loosen certain valves or untie something.
I ask Keckler where he started with LET ME DIE--did he have some master plan in mind?
He laughs. "No, I mean it was more like a punch line really. It was more like 'wouldn't it be funny to die over and over again and to put all these opera deaths together?' People seemed really excited by the idea--as something you can understand immediately. Yes, it can be a sound bite but, you know, it's actually doing it is immensely complicated and difficult: how to sustain something that's constantly ending.
"I was interested in the fact that the deaths in opera are something you wait for--and fear. It's a kind of subversive way of taking an event that's anticipated and detonating it right away, and then do another one and then another one. It's of some perverse interest to me. Also the poetic fact that the opera deaths are often the most virtuosic parts of an opera. You have a character who is running out of breath, but at the same time there's a singer who is using an incredible amount of breath to show it.
"So that whole tension excited me and also you know there's that original aria, the overarching 'Lasciameti morire' that gives the piece its name, the only extant part of the Monteverdi opera, ARIANNA. So it's Arianna (Ariadne) on an island and I talk about all this within the performance too because it's not all arias about dying but monologue as well. There's a sort of framing of that aria: She is stranded on the island but she's also sort of stranded, you know, because her own opera abandoned her as well, since it no longer exists. So the impulse to fragment everything really came from that image of Arianna on an island, floating through history on her own little scrap of aria without her opera."
So having seen some clips on YouTube, can you or do you separate yourself from performer to composer? Can you imagine somebody else performing the work that you do that you have created?
Yes; that's tough. That is tricky and interesting. You know a lot of my earlier work was a kind of monologue and I'm not sure what it would mean for somebody else to perform those works. And I also think that extends into stuff like my 'Smoke Song' thing or 'Opera Pirate'. You don't usually see somebody who's singing operatically talking to you know and has experienced directly the thing they're talking about. So I think that's the kind of mindf*ck of it. So it would be weird if somebody else were performing that stuff. It's my memory, my experience and I'm speaking from a certain point of view.
"On the other hand, many of my songs have nothing to do with autobiography, but about characters or even images and those songs could be sung by other people. In fact, I sometimes actually think they should be, because I don't think they are the best for my abilities as a singer. So, yes, there's a body of work that I have that would make sense for other people to perform."
What's your goal as a performer?
"I think for me as an artist I'm interested in talking to the largest audience possible but not at the expense of my own impulses. I have my values and my interests and I don't want to compromise those. But I'm interested in addressing larger groups.
"I'm really interested in producing unexpected pleasures and I want the audience to be stimulated by ideas and sounds and images. I feel responsible for them, I want to take care of them, even if we're going to somewhere that's unfamiliar. And I want them to experience pleasure. I'm really driven by pleasure."
As I reach the end our discussion, I pose one more pair of questions to Keckler: Do you ever think you'll ever be thought of as mainstream? And, will you kill yourself if you are?
""Well, says Keckler, "that sounds pretty simple but it's really complex.
"I always feel that the mainstream should be improved. And I don't have a messianic idea of myself that I should be the one to improve it.
"But there are a lot of people I like and who I think should be more mainstream than they are. I think the mainstream in this country has gone into a state of a kind of zombie form; I see a few artists who I think have some level of--again this sounds kind of quaint--but authenticity to them. So I think that the culture would be a lot better if we went back into a paradigm of weirdness being celebrated. I think that would that would be a healthier ecosystem for the culture.
"As for your second question, I think I would have to kill myself if I became, I don't know, some kind of cheesy, cheesy thing that just kept being wheeled out and doing the same thing over and over again.
"But I'm not allergic to the mainstream. You know, I think the mainstream should be better--and that I and all the weirdos I love should be part of it."
LET ME DIE will be performed as part of Opera Philadelphia's O19 Festival, presented in partnership with FringeArts, with major support from the William Penn Foundation, at FringeArts, 140 N Christopher Columbus Blvd, Philadelphia, PA. FringeArts is Philadelphia's home for contemporary performance, presenting progressive, world-class art that stretches the imagination and defies expectation. Performances will be done on September 21 at 8pm, September 22 at 8pm, September 25 at 8pm, September 26 at 8pm, September 27 at 8pm, September 28 at 8pm. It lasts approximately 80 minutes without intermission.